Bombay: Amit Chaudhuri’s Strange and Sublime Address

The writer grew up in Bombay, but the city took a few decades to grow on him. Photographs by Supriya Kantak.  
Bombay
In Bombay, says Amit Chaudhuri, the eye runs across the streets and meets the water. When seen from places like the Gateway of India, the city comes to be defined by the sea and the horizon.

In Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel, Friend of My Youth, he writes at one point, “The eye covers distances in a second. It lusts for freedom. Looking out, I often wanted to be free—not of home, but of the city.” There is something ambivalent about the Bombay Chaudhuri refers to. It is hard to pin down. Chaudhuri’s own relationship with the city, the book suggests, has always been hesitant. Even after you have reached the end of the writer’s slim, warm and utterly compelling 137-page novel, you can’t be certain if he likes or dislikes the city. The narrator of Friend might well be Amit Chaudhuri, but he makes no declarations on the writer’s behalf. He seems to have considered both Bombay and Mumbai deeply, but surprisingly feels little nostalgia for either. Though he grew up here, he only returns as an outsider.

When National Geographic Traveller India did call Chaudhuri in Kolkata, he spoke about ‘Bombay’, not Mumbai. Chaudhuri said, “I have spent more than 30 years calling the city Bombay. Why would I call it Mumbai all of a sudden? The word has no history for me in the English language.” He added with a laugh, “It’s a kind of Alice in Wonderland situation, and that’s not a situation I want to be in.” The writer spoke to us about his work, about growing up in Bombay and how Bombay has grown on him. Though only an extract, here is a sample of his thoughts on a city he has found both ostentatious and addictive.

 

Mount Mary Church, Mumbai

As the city opened up, Chaudhuri saw older churches and mosques become visible. The Mount Mary Church in Bandra, for instance, became iconic over the years.

“From my first book [A Strange and Sublime Address] onwards, I notice that I have written repeatedly about going somewhere else, about visiting another place. The first book is about going to Calcutta, but I suppose the whole idea of writing about return crystallised for me with Friend of My Youth. I have always found interesting the kind of transformation that results from being in a place that one is partly familiar with. Without that being an agenda, I like it when one rediscovers a place or one’s sense of place. That, for me, has been the way narratives work. To me, the story rather than being directed by plot, has always simply to do with going somewhere. When you talk about a return to Bombay, though, you see other things begin to converge in the confluence of the past and the present.

In one part of Friend of My Youth, I talk about Bombay being a city that is quite literally defined by the sea and the horizon. I talk about looking out at the sea and not seeing it. The eye kind of runs across the streets and then meets the water. One thing that has changed for me since I was a child, looking out at the sea, is my ability to notice it, to have a sense of what it means to be in a seafront city. I also notice things about that seafront, especially Marine Drive. I see how it has become a place of congregation for all kinds of people, which when I was growing up, it was not. It was more or less a barren sort of place, and only very few people lingered there. Today, Marine Drive’s broad pavement is a part of Bombay’s attempt to reuse its spaces. That, for me, is a big part of the rediscovery.

Marine Drive, Mumbai

Marine Drive became a place of congregation and a part of Bombay’s attempt to reuse its spaces.

Though my parents left Bombay in 1989, I had left a few years earlier, in 1983. When I would return to Bombay in 1985, my parents had moved from Cuffe Parade to St. Cyril Road in Bandra. In a place like St. Cyril Road, Bombay didn’t seem like Bombay. It was not the Bombay I knew. For me, that was a huge discovery because I would come back from the silence of London to a third-storey apartment where I could hear things and look at them. The St. Cyril Road flat looked out onto the lane, onto the trees, and also out onto another building where a Parsi couple lived. I could now glimpse these other lives in other houses. I couldn’t have done that from the 12th and 25th storey of buildings in which I had grown up, and which overlooked the sea.

After my parents left for Calcutta, I would only visit Bombay occasionally for book launches and events like that, and I still held it in some contempt because of my memory of its ostentation. And when I say “it”, I mean the kind of Bombay in which I had grown up, and that is now called South Bombay. But despite its flaunting of wealth, something drew me to the city. It had been transformed, and I think part of that transformation had to do with how far-flung Bombay became, and how you were now connected to new routes and flyovers that didn’t exist before. For instance, Tulsi Pipe Road, which one hardly ever went down before, had now become a kind of alternative route. When going down these routes, one saw forms of habitation including old buildings, churches and mosques, which one never saw before. I found some of that very moving, some of this opening up, some of this movement in the city which was newly possible.

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Houses in Bandra, Mumbai

Houses in Bandra always fascinated Chaudhuri.

Bombay and Calcutta, each in their own way, have some very European characteristics, which almost take them beyond the colonial metropolises that they were. Though that common aspect does interest me, there are differences as well. I think the light in Bombay is very different from the light in Calcutta. It is a bright, optimistic light. It doesn’t create an ethos for retrospection or slowing down. It creates an ethos that one might move forward in. I feel you inhabit that light the moment you arrive in the airport.

In Calcutta, however, there are moments when I’ll be reminded of Bombay; for instance, if I hear someone speak in Gujarati, or smell curry leaves or vadas. I realise I miss those things. When I am in Calcutta, I miss the kind of Maharashtrian or South Indian influences you find in Bombay. I miss the Parsi and Goan elements of life. I miss the overheard conversations and the smell of food. When I hear something or smell something, Bombay will come back to me. I always believed Bombay was not formative to me, but I now see it clearly was. I’m in a peculiar position of having grown up there, while having felt I never belonged there. Ironically, though, for a person who felt he never belonged to Bombay, I now think I’ve always belonged there. As far as Bombay is concerned, everything I say seems to have a kind of history where the opposite was also true.

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The Kala Ghoda Festival [Chaudhuri has spoken at the festival over the years] sometimes puts me up at the Astoria Hotel, so when I now walk down Churchgate, I remember that I have had the experience of walking down that stretch on multiple occasions at multiple times of the day.

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri inside the Cathedral and John Connon School where he was once a pupil. Photo Courtesy: Amit Chaudhuri

Walking down that pathway, you again feel the animation of people around you, and you see all kinds of people. One of the nice things about Bombay has been that it has allowed informal trade to exist in these so-called heritage precincts. People admirably fought for these precincts, and that’s why you have these great buildings that still exist in the area, but at the same time, these precincts have not been entirely sanitised. You still have the same kinds of informal trade there that you have in other parts of India and in other cities, the kind of trade that you had in Bombay when I was growing up. You have this multiplicity of life and activity, and one finds this very moving when one is walking through it.

Bombay, it must be said, has managed to hold and reuse whole sections of the city without making it a heritage site. In a heritage city, everybody risks becoming part of the tourism industry. People become touts or helpers of touts. You see this in Istanbul. You see this in Morocco, even Edinburgh. Bombay does have tourism, but it also has its own reasons for being a commercial city. Sites like Colaba, for instance, are being used and reused without becoming heritage sites. That is good to see and quite a feat to pull off.

What I do find very disturbing, though, is the way trees are being felled in Bombay. I thought Bombay had moved to a place where it had found a way to be the only city that was being extremely sensitive to the way in which it preserved its ancient trees. For an ostentatious city, it was very unostentatious about the way in which it preserved its trees and its gardens. I am not a frequenter of gardens, but Bombay had forced me to revise my view about these places. And by gardens, I don’t only mean the iconic Kamla Nehru Park in Malabar Hills, but also the gardens found on the stretch between Marine Drive and Mantralaya. I have seen them from the outside, and they are extraordinary for being so beautiful without the beauty being laboured in any way. I feel the felling of trees is a slap in the face of those who have come to respect and adore Bombay, the Bombay I lived in and the one I’m reappraising.

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Aerial view of Bombay

Most aerial views of Bombay suggest an animatedness that Chaudhuri finds addictive.

No addiction can ever have an immediate answer, and its cause can never be known. We never know why one is addicted to a substance or thing, and that is why these addictions are so enlivening and corrosive. If we knew exactly why we were addicted to something, we would know how to deal with it. The power of addiction would have also been much diminished. It is precisely because of reasons that we are not aware of that we are addicted to cities, to certain cities. I have often said that I am addicted to modernity. I am addicted to the modernity that I first saw embodied in Calcutta, and that’s why I grew up with this addiction to Calcutta. There is also in me an addiction to Bombay, I realise: its different kind of light, its different forms of animatedness. I now realise that these are all deeply engrossing to me.

When I was a child I missed my visits to Calcutta and felt the kind of withdrawal symptoms an addict suffers from. I feel the same thing sometimes with Bombay these days. My wife seems to have become addicted to it as well. She quite recently remarked that it would be nice to spend a few days in Bombay. And that is a very weird thing to say because people would say it is nice to go and spend some time in a quiet retreat or to go and see some famous monument somewhere, but to say you want to go to Bombay, to say you want to travel to the city is odd. That can only be explained by some kind of addiction having entered your blood. You are missing something. You are not going there because you are going to see a historic landmark or site. Something is missing from the bloodstream and the bloodstream needs and recognises this.”

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    Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He works as the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.

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